A Pilgrimage to Marfa, Texas

Have you heard of Marfa, Texas? A remote desert town of indie artisans and ranchers in West Texas with a population of 2,000? Think hard.

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Here are some clues:

 Marfa street scene.

Marfa street scene.

  • Film History
  • Unexplained Occurrences         
  • High Art
  • Amazon Series

Do you recall that movie Giant from the 1950’s? It starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Have you heard of the Marfa Lights? The lights are a phenomenon whereby some people swear they have seen mysterious lights dancing across the plains. An attraction that draws in tourists and those with proclivities for the supernatural (read: aliens). The rationale for why this happens has remained inconclusive. Or maybe you are an art person and know about Donald Judd? He was a New York artist who started buying up land and buildings in the 70’s, eventually forming the Chinati Foundation of Marfa. Or perhaps you caught the Amazon show called I Love Dick? The hilarious one-season series set in present day Marfa based on the early 90’s writings of feminist Chris Krause starring a frenetic Kathryn Hahn and a well-aged Kevin Bacon. Watch it and manifest a trip to Marfa. We kind of did.

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Obsessed at a young age

My knowledge of Marfa actually goes way back to my theatre kid high school days and the reading of the play, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean by Ed Graczyk. There is also a 1982 film adaptation, directed by Robert Altman, starring Cher and Kathy Bates. The story features the Disciples of James Dean, a fan-club devoted to the legendary actor and their multi-decade history via flashbacks. It left an impression. For over 20 years, Marfa has been in my consciousness as a place I wanted to visit. Recently, Gabe and I both had been itching to check it out. Alas, the perfect opportunity came.

 Ricky enjoying a glass of wine at the dinner he and his partner Katie hosted for the volunteers on the last night. 

Ricky enjoying a glass of wine at the dinner he and his partner Katie hosted for the volunteers on the last night. 

And the wine part?

Wine. The nexus of most (read: all) of our travels. This time it was more about the promise of such. Meet Ricky Taylor. A man with a plan. Ricky is the proprietor of Alta Marfa, a stretch of rugged terrain in the Davis Mountains, 30 minutes outside Marfa. He has set out to cultivate grapes on his property there and eventually make a “Texas Grand Cru”. I quite believe he will. At this moment, Alta Marfa, now a bona fide vineyard, is plump with the recent plantings of 6,000 grapevines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. No joke. Saw it with my own eyes. Gabe got down and dirty and pitched in. I interviewed Ricky and took a ton of photos. You can read the interview at The Vintner Project. You can also learn more about Ricky and his project at his blog, here.

 Ricky planting Cabernet Sauvignon vines with some of the volunteers.

Ricky planting Cabernet Sauvignon vines with some of the volunteers.

Who wants to plant a Vineyard?!

A few months ago I started following Ricky/Alta Marfa on Instagram. I was intrigued by his intention to plant a vineyard near Marfa. I wondered why there and what the soil might be like. I was curious about the climate, which grapes might flourish and all the other factors relevant to a vineyard. Most central was that he was starting from scratch. Or seed as it were. He has a day job in Houston. That is almost a 9 hour drive from Marfa. It seems to me still, a Herculean undertaking. When he posted his call for volunteers to help plant the vineyard, I shared it with Gabe, as he is the green-thumb of the family. He decided that he wanted to volunteer. It is not often that such an opportunity comes along. Lots of people go to work harvests as volunteers, though less and less in California due to liability concerns. Alta Marfa represents a departure from the status quo of the wine world. The location, the approach, all of it. Super radical. Off we went.

 Prada Marfa installation on Highway 90.

Prada Marfa installation on Highway 90.

The Journey

First off, you should know that Marfa is a 3 hour drive from any major airport. We opted to fly into El Paso, which is hugged by the Rio Grande and borders Mexico, near the industrial town of Juarez. The Border Patrol presence is strong. We were stopped about an hour outside of El Paso and asked if we are citizens. Just an FYI. The drive was easy enough with sweeping views of desert plains and not much else, until Prada Marfa. The permanent 2005 art installation by artists Elmgreen and Dragset. It is approximately 25 miles before Marfa on Highway 90. Prada Marfa has become an iconic photo-op turnoff. The structure itself is one thing and there is also a sort of love lock on the fence replication of the bridge in Paris. If you go, walk around the building to see/participate in that. For sojourners to Marfa on this route, Prada Marfa is a delicious crumb on the trail, foreshadowing of the inspired community that awaits.

  Al Campo , one of our favorite places in Marfa. They have a wine patio, restaurant and event space, all semi al fresco style. 

Al Campo, one of our favorite places in Marfa. They have a wine patio, restaurant and event space, all semi al fresco style. 

The Schematic 

As we entered the town, we noted hand painted signs on wooden boards advertising the wares of the locals, dusty roads, and the intermittent person clearly walking to their next destination. More like a hamlet, it is possible to walk most places in town. Mini adobe houses abound, surrounded by hearty cacti, interspersed with sealed off compounds, meant for the well-heeled. The money has moved in. And more is likely coming. A quick glance at the real estate reveals that it is trending up, but there is still time to break in, before the fabled Amtrak stop is appointed there. Apparently politics are the hold-up. Aren't they always? An Airbnb is right nice in Marfa. We had a pleasant stay at one. Met our needs. There are a few hotels on the spectrum and a campground with an array of options: yurts, air streamers and glamping

 

Marfa Montage

In Toto

Over the 4 days we were there, we ate beautiful food, sipped interesting wines (rosé from Lebanon!), took in some art, supported resident craftspeople and made many fruitful connections. Oh and Gabe helped plant a vineyard:) Marfa is a refreshing get-away from the hyper-connected relentless pace that most of our lives consist of. We loved it. We wished we had a few more days to poke around. It is most chill. The locals are originals, ready to share valuable insights about what not to miss. We are thrilled to have met Ricky, Katie, the whole family and the volunteer crew. We look forward to returning for harvest and of course to taste the first vintage of Alta Marfa. 

Have more Marfa questions?